It’s Saturday night at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan. A DJ from New York rock station WRXP is on stage introducing Bell X1 as the headline act for a special St Patrick’s Day gig. There are some Irish people in the packed hall, but for the most part, the audience is comprised of New Yorkers. This is the third gig of a four-date tour of the United States to promote their new album, ‘Blue Lights On The Runway’.
Frontman Paul Noonan and his revitalised band, which now includes guitarist Mark Aubele and drummer Rory Doyle, from The Walls, take to stage and embark on an outstanding set. Everything seems to work: the sound is perfect, the lights are stunning, the crowds is buzzing and the five guys on stage are on top form. It seems appropriate that in a venue just a few hundred yards from Broadway, there’s a rock band who still know how to put on a show. ‘New York has been very good to us,’ Noonan tells the crowd and they respond with a roar.
Afterwards, State congratulates the band on the gig and tells Noonan how the lighting, sound and performance all conspired to produce a truly memorable event. ‘I only went through the set with the sound man today. He didn’t know the songs at all. But that’s New York for you,’ Noonan laughs. ‘It’s great when you come across people who love what they do and want to engage with the band. It’s rare to find that in Europe.’
It is clear that this city has a special place in the hearts of Bell X1 and it seems the feeling is mutual.
‘When you land at JFK airport and take a cab into Manhattan and see that skyline looming up in front of you, it’s the stuff of movies,’ Noonan explains. ‘New York has a vitality that is like nowhere in the world and we’ve been building steadily here. We’re blown away by how enthusiastic people are.
‘There’s a type of European cynicism towards the -Have A Nice Day’ culture. People are very suspicious of it but I’ve found it to be genuine: there’s a collective atmosphere here of positivity and of making things happen.’
Fast forward three days to St Patrick’s’ Day and we are all in the green room of the Ed Sullivan Theatre at 55th Street and Broadway for the afternoon recording of The Late Show with David Letterman. Bell X1 have managed to land the plum Paddy’s Day music spot on this prestigious show, which has five million viewers in America as well as tens of millions more who watch via satellite channels around the globe.
There are two acts here for this evening’s recording, Bell X1 and superstar actress Julia Roberts, who is promoting her new film. She’s on a different floor to us and we sit around watching the monitors as the show’s Top Ten is being recorded. We eat sandwiches, chat and look out the window at the Manhattan skyline. There’s a great atmosphere and a sense of fun in the Bell X1 camp.
‘With the boys playing with us and being on tour, it’s like being on a school trip with beer,’ Paul Noonan smiles. ‘We are all a bit childishly excited about the whole thing . We are enjoying each other’s company: it’s invigorating to be bouncing off other people. Mark and Rory have brought a freshness to things.’
The newcomers, however, don’t play on the new record. They’ve been drafted in for the extensive tours of Europe and the US over the next few months. Meanwhile, in Ireland they’ve sold out most of their gigs and have had to add extra dates to cope with the demand. Things are going well; the album is number three in the charts and the single The Great Defector is getting blanket airplay.
State brings up the potentially delicate subject of the slagging they have been getting in Ireland over the Talking Heads sound of the single. It seems that if you give the average music fan a sound bite such as -Bell X1 sound like Talking Heads’, it becomes a catchphrase, and one that is regurgitated ad infinitum by people who haven’t even heard the whole album. State heard one national DJ tell his listeners: ‘Welcome to Stars in their Eyes. On tonight’s show, we have Bell X1. Tonight Matthew, they’re going to be Talking Heads.’ He then played the track.
‘Because the single got so much airplay, the hook became -it sounds like Talking Heads’,’ Noonan notes. ‘But I don’t think the album does as a whole. The song is definitely our most Talking Heads moment, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. We all soak up lots of influences by osmosis. But I don’t think all the comments have been all derogatory: some people think it’s a good thing. Others think it’s cheeky. We are big fans and really admire David Byrne as an artist. It’ll be great to see him in Dublin in April.’
The next single from the album will perhaps give the doubters something new to talk about. For the moment, though, the band head to the Letterman stage and record their song. Then it’s straight out the stage door and into a waiting car for the airport. They are playing a gig in Boston tonight after their Late Show appearance.
‘It’s a pity we have to leg it right away,’ rues Noonan. ‘The last time we were here, we hung around with Dave’s house band afterwards. Paul Shaffer and the others are such cool guys. We had a great time messing around in the studio as we sat in Letterman’s chair and pretended to interview each other. This short trip to America is really just us saying hello, as the album came out here last week: we wanted to be here while it was still fresh in people’s minds but we will be back for a full tour in June.’
For full details of a Bell X1 gig near you in the coming weeks see here.